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2 November 2019

“It could be the next expenses scandal”: Meg Hillier on parliament’s bullying problem

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee on why she is running to be the next Speaker

By Ailbhe Rea

On paper, Meg Hillier is a textbook case of a one-time Labour rising star. An Oxford-educated junior government minister under Gordon Brown, and later a member of the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband, Hillier was on the up when she endorsed Yvette Cooper for the party leadership back in 2015, no doubt dreaming of Labour’s return to power under the party’s first female Prime Minister. 

It wasn’t to be, of course. Hillier’s long-time neighbouring MP, Jeremy Corbyn, won by a landslide victory. The MP for Hackney South quietly moved to the backbenches, where she pursued an alternative path via select committees. Now chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee, Hillier wields enormous clout scrutinising government spending. But does she regret the career that might have been? And does that explain her run to replace John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons?

The short answer is no. As is clear to anyone who has seen Hillier in hustings for the role in recent weeks, her reason for standing as Speaker is simple: “too many heartbreaking stories” about bullying, abuse and harassment in Westminster.  

“When I got into the job of chair of the Public Accounts Committee I began to work a lot more with House [of Commons] staff,” she tells me when we sit down in her office in parliament. “And in doing that I have heard some frankly horrendous stories about how many staff in the House have been treated.” 

She points to a report from earlier this year by Gemma White QC, which revealed harrowing details of MPs’ staff being shouted at or groped, and having heavy office equipment thrown at them. A year ago, high court judge Dame Laura Cox reported a “disturbing” and “pervasive” culture in Westminster, and warned that a tradition of “deference and silence” had prevented victims from speaking out. 

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“We all know that stuff goes on but unless you see it you can’t call it out,” Hillier says. “Staff have lists, you know basically there’s a little nod and a wink, so if you say you’re applying for a job with x, people go “oh”, they make a grimace, or they indicate, or the word goes round, [that certain MPs] are not a good place to work for.” She adds that “a high turnover of staff can be an indicator” of bullying or bad practice by an MP. 

“When somebody starts in an office and they’re told by the team, ‘x will make you cry (x being the MP) in the first week but don’t worry, it gets better after that’ – what world are we in where that’s acceptable?” 

Like all of the candidates for Speaker, Hillier has committed to implementing the recommendations of the Cox report. “There’s supposed to be an independent panel that hasn’t yet been set up. No one really knows why… well, we can sort of speculate,” she adds with a knowing look. “But it hasn’t happened. But I maintain that having an independent panel is not on its own a solution… It’s a failure if it gets to that point.  It really needs to be stopped much earlier.”

The solution, as Hillier sees it, is “a good culture of modern, proper, professional HR practice.”

“That sounds really boring,” she smiles. “People think ‘oh you don’t want a speaker who’s dealing with that’. Actually, it could be the next expenses scandal in my view. Really clearly.”

She points to the myriad problems that arise when each MP runs their own independent office, with no guidance or “standard procedures”. “The ludicrous thing with this place is we’re all 650 independent businesses,” she says. “Some MPs have frankly said to me that they would love to have better advice – they’ve arrived in parliament, they’ve never run an office, some of them haven’t really been involved in politics like this… Why don’t we have standard procedures on everything from sick leave, bereavement leave, how to manage access to the internet? You hear awful stories about twenty-somethings thrown into an office and being told just to ‘Get on with it’. You need mentoring, you need support, you need appraisals…” 

She points, also, to the lack of recourse for staff members who are being treated badly by their MP employer.  HR support is available for MPs themselves, but “if I was doing something inappropriate to a staff member, and they wanted some advice, there is nowhere they could go. There is no HR support because I am HR support for my staff. I manage and do all of that in my own office, theoretically. So I can get advice, but staff can’t. They don’t even know their rights.”

Hillier would like to bring in “outside expertise” from unions and establish a new system, where MPs “still manage [our] own team, but with certain clearer, fairer parameters, and make sure that we’re actually delivering best practice”.  She is also urging for better support for MPs when they retire or lose their seats. 

Her pitch, then is mainly focused on improving the nature of work as an MP or a staffer. “It doesn’t mean I’ve not got lots of thoughts about the chamber,” she explains, “but what I’m concerned about is if we don’t tackle the issue around support for MPs and staff.” 

“It’s not necessarily a popular pitch,” she adds, in tacit acknowledgement that she isn’t expecting MPs to back her in huge numbers. (In a contest of nine, Lindsay Hoyle, Harriet Harman and Eleanor Laing are considered the front-runners.) “A lot of members will resist it because they want to have complete autonomy in their offices,” she says.

But Hillier hopes MPs will recognise that a negative story about an MP’s conduct will damage everyone in Westminster. “The bad headlines hit us all. People don’t go, ‘oh it’s alright, Meg Hillier’s a good employer.’ They just don’t differentiate… I don’t know whether that’s popular with colleagues but it’s got to be done.”

If elected as Speaker, giving up her current role as chair of the PAC would be “a wrench. This is one of the most exciting jobs in parliament. But I went into politics to make life a fairer place. It would be very easy to ignore what’s going on… But I can’t let this pass, this moment. You know, it’s never a good time, the Speaker suddenly announced he’s retiring, we’re all going through a lot in our lives, trigger ballots in the Labour party, all five Labour candidates are going through that at the same time as trying to run for Speaker… 

“You could say it’s not an easy time to do this, but I was determined that I’ve got to stand up and talk about this issue. It’s just not fair to the staff to have to live through this forever, and it’s going to come back and bite MPs. I don’t want to be the person that says in two or three years time, ‘see, I told you so’.”

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